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In an era of orbital satellites so advanced that they are able to make out objects half the size of cars from space, a spy balloon might seem like a bit of a relic.

They were a prominent tool for reconnaissance during the Cold War and were even used in a more basic form for intelligence gathering in the Napoleonic Wars more than 200 years ago.

But security experts say the balloons are just the “tip of a revolution” in the development and use of new high-altitude surveillance craft, with the UK even investing millions in a project to develop spy balloons last year.

It comes as the US military on Friday said it was tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon that has been flying over northwestern America in recent days.

A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana but the Pentagon would not confirm whether it was the surveillance balloon
A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana

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Chinese spy balloon flying over US airspace, says Pentagon
Spy balloon over US is actually a ‘civilian airship’, says China

A senior defence official said the US has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and was flying over sensitive sites to collect information, while China has not immediately denied the balloon belonged to them.

Beijing admitted that the balloon had come from China, but insisted it was a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace and that it was for meteorological and other scientific research.

What are spy balloons?

The devices are lightweight balloons, filled with gas, usually helium, and attached to a piece of spying equipment such as a long-range camera.

They can be launched from the ground and are sent up into the air where they can reach heights of between 60,000ft (18,000m) and 150,000ft (45,000m), above the flight paths of commercial aircraft in an area known as “near space”.

Once in the air, they travel using a mixture of air currents and pressurised air pockets, which can act as a form of steering.

Why are they still useful in the satellite era?

According to defence and security analyst Professor Michael Clarke, the biggest advantage of spy balloons over satellites are that they can study an area over a longer period of time.

Sky News' Defence Analyst Prof Michael Clarke
Professor Michael Clarke

“The advantage is they can stay in one place for a long time,” he told Sky News.

“Because of the way the Earth rotates, unless a satellite is over the Equator, you need three to five satellites going all the time to track the same spot.

“These balloons are also relatively cheap, and much easier to launch than a satellite.”

Will balloons continue to be used in future for spying?

Very much so, according to Professor Clarke.

Despite the wide use of satellite technology, countries including the UK are also focusing on the development and use of spycraft to operate in the upper atmosphere.

In August, it was announced the Ministry of Defence had agreed a £100m deal with US defence company Sierra Nevada to provide high-altitude unmanned balloons to be used for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Professor Clarke said: “(These balloons) are the very tip of the revolution for passive upper atmosphere aircraft.”

He said other defence firms, such as BAE, were working on ultralight solar-powered drones which are able to operate in the upper atmosphere and stay in place for up to 20 months.

Why have China used them now?

According to Professor Clarke, the use of these balloons, if indeed they were launched by China, will likely have been a message to the US following its decision to open new military bases in the Philippines.

“I think it’s a challenge,” he said.

“They (China) are signalling that if the US is going to come closer to them then they will be more aggressive with their surveillance.

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Could there be a US-China war?

Watch: Future Wars: Could there ever be a conflict between the US and China?

“It is also caused a political issue in the US now, because it will be seen as a sign of weakness not to shoot it down.

“This causes some embarrassment, but the US doesn’t need to respond.”

The balloon was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday – close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

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Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, says that those involved should be ‘cool-headed’

Military and defence leaders said they considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.

Professor Clarke added: “I think the debris issue is a bit of an excuse. It was over one of the least densely populated areas of the US and if they needed to they could have asked everyone to stay inside.

“I don’t think they wanted to make it a bigger issue, because China are daring them to shoot it down and make it an international issue.”

Spy balloon threatens efforts to ease US-China relations

Distrust between the Chinese and the Americans is as high as it’s been for decades.

An incident like this would serve to feed that distrust no matter when it happened, but coming, as it has, just days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s highly significant visit to Beijing could seriously undermine tentative efforts being made on both sides to try to halt any further deterioration in relations.

Mr Blinken is expected to land in Beijing on Sunday and had planned to meet his opposite number Qin Gang as well as Wang Yi, China’s highest ranking diplomat.

A huge amount of painstaking diplomatic effort will have gone into making such a visit possible – the fact it was happening at all is a progress of sorts.

In recent days there has even been suggestions Mr Blinken might meet with President Xi Jinping himself.

If so, he would be the first US secretary of state granted this level of access in five years and it would be a major sign both sides are serious about attempting to smooth over their deeply damaged relations.

The Chinese leader and US President Joe Biden both recognised when they met at the G20 summit late last year that they need to do more to ensure that their distrust and competition does not descend into conflict and confrontation.

This visit was a clear part of that effort. But mutual recognition that spiralling tensions aren’t a good thing is not the same thing as the active rebuilding of trust.

This incident will likely be seen by the Americans as flying in the face of both. And there is, perhaps, an awareness here in Beijing of just how much jeopardy this incident poses to those fledgling efforts.

Indeed, at a regular news conference in Beijing on Friday, there was a clear desire on the Chinese part to contain speculation.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said China was “verifying” the situation and added: “I would like to emphasise that until the facts are clarified, speculation and hype will not be helpful to the proper resolution of the issue.”

Given the low ebb of current relations between the two, Mr Blinken’s visit was not expected to deliver any breakthroughs. It was being framed more as a chance for both sides to restate their positions and red lines and keep the channels of dialogue open.

It will likely never be known if this spy balloon was purposefully scheduled ahead of the visit or if it’s just unfortunate timing, but if it forces Mr Blinken to cancel, the ramifications for the longer term project of containing deteriorating relations could be very serious indeed.

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Gwyneth Paltrow wins high-profile civil court case against man who claimed she crashed into him while skiing




Gwyneth Paltrow wins high-profile civil court case against man who claimed she crashed into him while skiing

Gwyneth Paltrow has won a high-profile civil court case against a man who claimed she crashed into him while skiing.

She was awarded $1 in damages after the jury found retired optometrist Terry Sanderson was “100%” at fault for the skiing accident.

The jurors deliberated for two hours on Thursday after hearing eight days of evidence.

Paltrow, dressed in a navy blazer jacket and striped shirt, did not react when the verdict was announced.

In a statement released after the verdict, she said she was “pleased” with the outcome.

“I felt that acquiescing to a false claim comprised my integrity,” she said.

“I am pleased with the outcome and I appreciate all of the hard work of Judge Holmberg and the jury, and thank them for their thoughtfulness in handling this case.”

Mr Sanderson, 76, sued the Hollywood actress for $300,000 (£242,000), saying the 2016 collision on the slopes of Utah left him with several broken ribs and severe brain injuries.

Paltrow, who is also a lifestyle influencer, denied the claims, alleging Mr Sanderson crashed into her at the Deer Valley resort, and caused her to lose “half a day of skiing”.

Terry Sanderson testifies in Park City, Utah
Terry Sanderson testifies in Park City, Utah

She counter-sued him for the awarded amount of $1 and her legal fees.

During the court case in Park City, jurors heard evidence from a variety of medical experts, ski instructors, and members of both Mr Sanderson and Paltrow’s family, including the actress’ children Apple and Moses Martin.

Mr Sanderson said he had become a “self-imposed recluse” after the incident and had been advised never to ski again in case of further injury.

But Paltrow’s lawyers showed photos of him enjoying multiple holidays after the accident.

Paltrow's legal team played an animation of how they say the crash happened. Paltrow is seen on top of Terry Sanderson
Paltrow’s legal team played an animation of how they say the crash happened. Paltrow is seen on top of Mr Sanderson

Oscar-winning actress Paltrow, 50, said she felt “very sorry” for Mr Sanderson but reiterated that she was not “at fault” for the crash.

Mr Sanderson said he had been told by medical experts that travelling would be “healing” for him and that he had struggled during his trips.

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Donald Trump indicted: Who is Stormy Daniels and what is former president accused of doing?




Donald Trump indicted: Who is Stormy Daniels and what is former president accused of doing?

Donald Trump has been indicted by a grand jury in New York, making him the first ex-president to face criminal charges.

The case against him centres on a $130,000 (£105,000) payment made to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Live updates – Prosecutors launch first ever criminal case against former president

What is Trump accused of doing?

Ms Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, claims she had an affair with Mr Trump in 2006, which the former US president denies.

In 2016 when he was running for president, she offered to sell her story to the press.

Mr Trump’s then-lawyer Michael Cohen was notified of her plans, resulting in a $130,000 (£105,000) payment being made to keep Ms Daniels quiet.

More on Donald Trump

Once he was elected, Mr Trump reimbursed Mr Cohen by paying him more than double the original amount. He continued to deny the affair, however.

Pic: AP
Pic: AP

New York investigators have been looking into the former president’s finances for years – originally led by former District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.

But when he was replaced with Alvin Bragg in 2022, Mr Bragg decided to drop the grand jury investigation into claims the Trump empire fraudulently inflated its real estate value.

Instead he decided to focus on the hush money case last summer, impanelling a grand jury (one assembled in secret to determine whether there’s enough evidence to prosecute) in January.

Soon after Mr Cohen, who was jailed on several counts in 2018, was summoned by prosecutors.

According to court documents, Mr Trump falsely listed his former lawyer’s reimbursement as “legal services”.

What charges could Trump face?

It is not yet known what Mr Trump will be charged with.

But among the options for prosecutors is an accounting fraud charge over the payment made to Mr Cohen.

They could also decide to indict him on campaign fraud charges – as silencing Ms Daniels’s claims could have helped propel him to power.

Mr Trump has described the investigation as a politically motivated “witch hunt”.

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Donald Trump faces criminal charges over alleged hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels




Donald Trump faces criminal charges over alleged hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels

Donald Trump has been indicted on criminal charges arising from an alleged hush money payment to an adult film actress.

A grand jury in New York voted to indict Trump over possible offences related to a $130,000 (£105,000) payment to Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

It was allegedly made in exchange for Daniels’ silence about an alleged sexual encounter she said she had with Trump a decade earlier.

He is the first former US president to face criminal charges in court, even as he makes a bid to retake the White House in 2024.

Stormy Daniels in Manhattan in 2018. Pic: AP
Stormy Daniels in Manhattan in 2018. Pic: AP

Trump, a Republican, said he was “completely innocent” and called the indictment “political persecution”, with his lawyers saying they will “vigorously fight” it.

Live updates: Prosecutors launch criminal case against Trump

The Manhattan district attorney’s investigation centred on accusations of money paid to Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, whom Trump allegedly feared would go public with claims they had extramarital sexual encounters with him.

Trump, 76, has denied having affairs with either woman.

His former personal lawyer Michael Cohen said he co-ordinated with Trump on the payments to Daniels, real name Stephanie Clifford, and also to McDougal.

Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations in 2018 related to the payments and served more than a year in prison.

Federal prosecutors said Cohen acted at Trump’s direction.

Donald TrumpFormer U.S. President Donald Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen leaves a federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., November 22, 2021. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Trump’s ex-personal lawyer Michael Cohen served more than a year in prison

Trump said: “The Democrats have lied, cheated and stolen in their obsession with trying to ‘Get Trump,’ but now they’ve done the unthinkable – indicting a completely innocent person in an act of blatant election interference.”

“Never before in our nation’s history has this been done.”

He added: “I believe this witch-hunt will backfire massively on Joe Biden.”

Donald Trump pictured on his plane. Image: AP
Donald Trump pictured on his plane. Image: AP

Read more:
Trump says investigations ‘straight out of Stalinist Russia horror show’
Who is Stormy Daniels?
How many investigations is former US president facing?

Trump was expected to surrender to authorities next week.

He has denied any wrongdoing and has repeatedly attacked the investigation by district attorney Alvin Bragg.

His office has spent nearly five years investigating Trump and the grand jury has been hearing its evidence since January.

Trump son hits out at indictment

On Twitter, one of Trump’s sons, Eric, wrote: “This is third world prosecutorial misconduct. It is the opportunistic targeting of a political opponent in a campaign year.”

Amid speculation in recent weeks that the former American leader was due to be indicted, Trump urged his supporters to protest against the authorities if he was detained.

Donald Trump dances during a campaign rally in Waco, Texas. Pic: AP
Trump dances during a campaign rally in Waco, Texas, on 25 March. Pic: AP

He published a long statement describing the investigation as a “political witch-hunt trying to take down the leading candidate, by far, in the Republican Party”.

“I did absolutely nothing wrong,” he said, before criticising a “corrupt, depraved and weaponised justice system”.

Other ongoing cases Trump faces include a Georgia election interference probe and two federal investigations into his role in the 6 January 2001 insurrection at the US Capitol.

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